Gal Gadot brings so much to the party as Wonder Woman that it’s a shame that only one of the four movies she’s played the character in has been worthy of her talents. This sequel to 2017’s wondrous WONDER WOMAN tries hard, huffing and puffing from the first second to last, but WONDER WOMAN 1984 really doesn’t go anywhere. This new film gives us two villains, and the more doesn’t make things merrier, not to mention Chris Pine in an oddly-conceived return as Steve Trevor, but at least it has Gadot. She’s even better this go-round in the action scenes, and when called upon to stretch dramatically, she does her best screen work to date. She makes the most of her part, but it’s not enough to make the picture work.
Taking place 66 years after WWI, when Steve died saving the day while Diana, AKA Wonder Woman, saved the world, the wondrous Amazon hasn’t moved on all that well from those events. For starters, she still pines for Steve, walking around rather glumly in her work as a curator at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. It’s the first of many miscues made in this outing, suppressing Gadot’s natural spark and charm for most of the first act until Pine appears. It also glosses over those 66 years. What, were there no other lovers or friends? Was she a superhero during WWII or the Depression? How about the McCarthy Hearings? The women’s movement in the 60s and 70s? What’s so super about her being in hiding while the world goes on without you?
Gadot gets to strut her stuff when Diana shows up in her Wonder Woman garb to stop a jewel heist at a mall that seems more cartoonishly 80s than the one in the third season of STRANGER THINGS, but it’s a fun set-piece nonetheless. Director Patty Jenkins shoots the action with real verve and clear through-lines, making it one of the better scenes in the sequel. Gadot looks wonderful swinging around the mall from her golden lasso like a female Tarzan too. She even adds some very cheeky expressions to her interactions with the thieves and the innocent bystanders, making the most of the script’s comedy.
However, soon after, the main plot kicks in, and its complexity starts to weigh down the fun. There’s an ancient artifact recovered from the robbery that comes with far too much back story. It has the power to grant wishes basically, but there’s too much complicated blather between Diana and fellow Smithsonian expert Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig). While figuring out the relic’s power, the two strike up a friendship, even becoming soul sisters as they steer clear of male sexism all around the workplace.
If the film had concentrated on these two in a feminist storyline, striking a blow against the macho jerks ruling the world, this sequel might’ve been both timely in a #MeToo way, as well as a clever take on the battle of the sexes. How does the typical woman, let alone a super one, topple patriarchal behavior? Instead, the film’s narrative quickly dissolves into typical “mad man wants to take over the world” schtick, a trope we’ve all seen so many times in everything from Bond to Marvel, it feels DOA before it even gets going.
The artifact is also akin to the legendary Monkey’s Paw from the famed fictional short story, and Diana even references it later on. Hold it, make a wish, and voila – your dream comes true, though not entirely in a good way. Thus, when Barbara wishes that she was as sexy, cool, and confident as Diana, she soon starts strutting and pouting like she’s Sheena Easton from one of those Bally health club commercials in the 80s. Wiig is subtly amusing here, going from nerd to knockout. Unfortunately, extreme hubris comes with the transformation, and Barbara ends up the secondary villain in this piece, stalking abusive men like prey. Diana, meanwhile, ends up unwittingly wishing for the return of her dead lover Steve. Soon enough, his spirit shows up, now taking control of the body of a local hunk. It’s a weird form of reincarnation and requires too much exposition as well.
Even with such a strange new version of Steve, Pine still manages to make him a solid comic foil to Gadot. Whether it’s his bewilderment over 8Os fashions or marveling at Diana’s ever-resplendent abilities, Pine brings the funny. Yet even with all the good things that Gadot and Pine add to the mix, the ever-lurching plot starts mucking up the fun.
That plot puts far too much emphasis on the official bad guy in the picture – TV huckster Max Lord (Pedro Pascal). Clearly modeled on Donald Trump, he craves money and power without putting in the work to achieve his dreams. Lord might be too on-the-nose in parodying our polarizing POTUS and even comes with a bad hairdo. Of course, Lord gets his hands on that powerful old relic and uses it to become a big cheese, and when he consumes it entirely, it’s so he can rule the world. (No cue for the hit Tears for Fears song from the 80s, though, a real missed opportunity. here?)
Pascal is funny in spots, but there’s too much of his outsized villain. He’s not particularly scary or charming in a Christoph Waltz sort of way either, and the script gives him little in the way of clever dialogue. And as the film enters its second hour, the character becomes exhausting. (Maybe that’s my Trump fatigue talking.) Nonetheless, Diana and Steve spend a lot of time chasing Lord down, schlepping all the way to the Middle East to stop him from procuring oil fields with his newfound powers.
At least in the desert, Jenkins directs an amazing action scene, the best in the film. While Lord’s convoy of armed vehicles drives down a two-lane road, Diana runs after it on foot. She bobs and weaves in and out of the traffic, and it’s nicely choreographed. Gadot appears to be doing most of the stunt work here too. She manages to give an intense and earnest performance even while skidding from vehicle to vehicle on her heels.
One of the great things about the 2017 film was how Jenkins and her screenwriters made each set-piece more than just an excuse for fighting. Such scenes in that film came with real consequences. Here, most of the third act turns into action for the sake of action film requirements. That’s especially true in the late skirmish between Diana and Barbara. After the scientist has morphed into a cheetah/human hybrid, she wants Wonder Woman out of her way, but it seems that the literal cougar could’ve just been lassoed, and the catfight stopped. Worse yet, it’s the one time in the film where the CGI looks shoddy. Wiig looks like she wandered in from last year’s disastrous movie CATS – – not a good look.
The script, written this time by Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callaham, makes too many mistakes like that unnecessary fight scene throughout the entire picture. Their story stumbles every time Diana has to explain what’s going on to the naive Steve. A misconceived parody of President Reagan falls flat, registering as neither clever nor necessary. And when the story attempts pathos regarding Lord’s adopted son, it feels a day late and a dollar short.
Gadot fares better, acing some serious monologues and showing genuine anguish at times, but the film around her fails her. Hopefully, the next Wonder Woman sequel will aim smaller to soar higher. Let Batman and Superman lord over the destruction of cities; Wonder Woman is a world builder. And as clever as this film is in introducing Wonder Woman’s invisible plane, such bits can’t compete with Gadot strutting her stuff. She’s a marvel. This sequel sure isn’t.